In this Memory Box, our Founder Freddie Cocker talks about the impact that losing his best friend at a company he worked for, Matt, had on him and his mental health.
Since I started this Memory Box feature on Vent, I’ve discovered very quickly that grief is an even more stigmatised topic than mental health is.
If you know someone who has lost a loved one or friend either through them telling you face-to-face or through word of mouth, naturally, it is a very delicate topic of conversation.
You don’t really know what to say to someone other than say ‘sorry’ in a stereotypically English manner and adopt an empathetic and calm tone of voice when talking to that individual. We’ve all done it. It’s the natural method we turn to.
When you’re on the other side of the conversation, its emotionally draining and difficult having to have that same conversation with many different people. Usually, it’s also to justify different things.
For example, you might want to decline a night out because you are grieving, tell your boss you can’t come in for work or cancel that doctor’s appointment you were planning to go to, all for the same reason. This repetition is inevitable; however, it doesn’t make it any less difficult.
Grief is a hugely personal emotion and one that must be handled with great care, empathy and compassion when someone is experiencing it. When it is sudden, the shock and pain can sometimes overwhelm your system. This is what I experienced when my friend Matt sadly passed away two years ago in August 2017.
I was around 5-6 months into my new job as a Communications Assistant at a technology company. Me and Matt had both joined the company on the same day and immediately we hit it off. Despite the age gap (me at 22 and Matt in his mid-30s), we bonded almost instantly.
We were both highly extroverted empaths who loved making other people happy, making new connections and helping others at work. We were both fairly loud but not in an overbearing way. We both loved football and always had a natter on a Monday morning about how our teams (Huddersfield and Arsenal) had done at the weekend, especially as my team had just achieved promotion to the Premier League for the first time in our history.
He also used to rib me now and then about my part-North of England heritage by saying “go eat a barm cake lad” which always made me chuckle.
We also both had an immense love for music and in particular, we bonded over our mutual love for black music and genres of black origin including Garage, Reggae, Bashment, Dancehall and Grime. Every so often, he would walk past my desk and in a very loud stage whisper, say in his best Jamaican Patois accent “Lawdamercy!”. It always put a smile on my face.
We’d constantly be having deep discussions about our favourite records in those particular genres or artists and he’d regale me with tales of his raving days seeing live performances from Heartless Crew, Pay As You Go Crew, Wiley and other Garage and Grime legends back in the day.
He was loved by everyone at the company and like me, would always check in with people to have a natter by the staff kitchen or be willing to do favours for people. Matt worked in our HR department and sometimes would need me to post a job opening on our corporate social media account. It was nothing to me and barely took 1-2 minutes but he’d always be so appreciative that I did it for him. He’d always say “are you sure that’s alright mate?” as if I was doing him a huge favour instead.
I had a holiday planned to go to Croatia for a music festival in August and we were chatting about the line-up and who I was excited to see. We agreed that we’d go for a lunch catch-up when I got back and organise to go to a Grime night at some point over the Christmas period. If I’d known that would be the last conversation I’d have with Matt, I would have said so much more important things than that.
After I got back, I was talking to another colleague who I had become close to at the company. To his credit, he text me very matter-of-factly and simply said “have you heard about Matt?” I quickly replied no, is he in trouble at work?” He replied “no, unfortunately he passed away last week, we don’t know much else at the moment…”.
As I had just got home from the airport that day, I couldn’t really process it properly. I sent a shocked response of sorts but one that didn’t convey any other emotion. I sat on my bed for a while and tried to take it in but nothing was working. I had given myself the rest of that week off to recover from the festivities so for the rest of the week my behaviour was pretty normal. I did some life admin, ran some errands and got ready for the first week back at work. I couldn’t’ have prepared myself for the avalanche of emotion that was about to fall on top of me.
As I clocked in and walked up the steps to my office, my bottom lip began to tremble and the realisation that Matt was really gone suddenly and brutally began to hit me. I’m an early-bird so I was the first one in at my desk. Thankfully I didn’t have to interact with anyone else for another 45 minutes.
My boss Angela arrived at 9 o’clock and I knew she was just trying to guide me through the day. My office was open-plan and had between 60/70 people working on the floor at one time with no walls dividing our desks. If you spoke loud enough in one corner of the room, someone on the other side would hear you. Every five minutes my mind expected Matt to come sauntering past my desk, walk to his desk on the other side of the room, get settled and then come and have our traditional Monday morning chat. It never happened and my mind was imploding at that routine being broken.
Every conversation I had with people I was trying to stop my bottom lip from trembling and having emotional voice-breaks. All my concentration was focused on not bursting into tears and falling to pieces in front of my boss, my team and the majority of my office. I’d lost not just a work colleague, an ally and someone I could trust but someone I genuinely could call a close friend in a single instant and without warning.
At around 11 o’clock I realised that I needed to do something otherwise I could have had an uncontrolled emotional outburst in front of anyone.
I took myself to the men’s toilets and wept. Not one or two tears, floods of them and for 10-15 minutes straight. I was in pieces and struggling to comprehend how I had lost him; ‘How did this happen?’ ‘What was the cause?’ ‘Why did it happen when I was away?’ ‘Could I have said something meaningful to him before I went away instead?’.
I came out of the toilets and worked away at my desk for another few hours until lunchtime. Then I took myself away again and had another cry in the basement toilets so it didn’t seem obvious.
The next few days I was on auto-pilot. I got through my work, pretended to enjoy the small-talk conversations I had with colleagues and went home. All throughout this, my line-manager Angela guided me through it, made sure I was as okay as possible and let me know that it wasn’t just me who was going through this, everyone in the office was grieving and some were struggling just as much as me or in some cases, were in worse emotional conditions.
I would find out before attending Matt’s funeral that he died of an undetected heart condition that caused him to go into cardiac arrest which they were unable to resuscitate him from. This has been a massive problem in men, especially with famous cases like former professional footballer Fabrice Muamba’s unexpected cardiac arrest whilst playing a match for Bolton in an FA Cup quarter-final game against Tottenham Hotspur. For Matt to be struck down by a similar condition was heart-breaking.
Over the weeks and months, I began to process Matt’s death and get to a stage where I could feel comfortable saying his name and looking back on our time together fondly.
With the support of Angela as well as other colleagues, in particular two women called Sonam and Gokay who helped me greatly in providing emotional support, my mind mended itself. I will forever be thankful to these women in particular as well as so many other former colleagues who looked out for me and made sure I was okay.
However, it does not mean I forgot him. I miss him every single day and the memories we created, even in a short period of time, I hold close to my heart.
When I am pissed off at something, am unsure about what decision to make or when someone asks me for a favour, I ask myself ‘What would Matt do?’. I always seem to find an answer after that…
Just by writing this article, I have felt better about Matt’s passing. I have smiled, cried and laughed all through writing this piece for him. I chose the picture of the hourglass for this Memory Box because just how you can turn an hourglass upside down to speed up time, so can life end as quickly as it started.
With every Memory Box, I hope I and other Vent Champions can help take the stigma out of grief and in turn, help all of us process and deal with it better in our lives.
I just hope that somewhere Matt is looking down smiling and is proud of me.
Freddie is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of Vent.
You can follow him on Twitter @freddiec1994.
After Matt’s passing, some of Freddie’s former colleagues did a sponsored bike-ride to raise money for the British Heart Foundation. Find out how you can donate here.
If you are concerned about someone’s heart condition, please ask them to consult a doctor. More information about heart check-ups can be found here.